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Out of Prison With Nowhere Safe to Go

As states grant early release to slow the spread of Covid-19, many people are leaving incarceration broke and without a net.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

John Mele didn’t expect to get out of jail so soon. The 48-year-old had three months left in his sentence, serving time for theft, burglary, and driving with a suspended license, when he was released from Ocean County Jail in Toms River, New Jersey, in late March. He is among thousands of incarcerated people being released nationwide amid an accelerating push to reduce overcrowding as the novel coronavirus spreads rapidly inside prisons and jails. “When I saw the news that they were releasing prisoners, I didn’t think it would be me,” Mele said in a phone interview. “I thought it would be people with less time left, or who were in there for a DUI or something. But they said, ‘pack up and go.’”

The warden’s decision relieved Mele, who worried about his health. Corrections officers weren’t wearing masks, he said, even though they went in and out of the facility. And he feared that others incarcerated with him downplayed their symptoms. “Nobody wants to end up contained in a cement cell all by themselves,” he said. (According to the Ocean County Jail warden, the facility was still in the process of procuring masks for staff in the lead-up to Mele’s release.)

His first day of freedom wasn’t easy, though. In New Jersey, jails are instructing those who have been released to quarantine for 14 days, and individuals set for release from Ocean County Jail were given the option to contact a relative or friend by phone, free of charge, but many still had nowhere to go. “I didn’t have any I.D., no wallet, nothing,” Mele said. Others said they planned to go to the nearest homeless shelter. But Mele, who has a history of drug use, was concerned that he might relapse without a stable place to stay and support in his sobriety. “If it’s a shelter or jail, I might as well be in jail,” he said.

With 2.3 million people locked up nationwide, the United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population, detained in facilities that are notoriously crowded and unsanitary. The prison population is also rapidly aging, and even before the novel coronavirus, the system faced an escalating health care crisis. Institutional policy and neglect deprive them of essentials like soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towels, and people detained in Washington, D.C., and Texas have recently taken legal action, demanding basic supplies. In California, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, people incarcerated at the California Institution for Men used socks and t-shirts to make masks. These conditions have fueled Covid-19 infections in jails across the country in recent weeks. At Rikers Island in New York, confirmed cases jumped from one to 200 in just 12 days, with that number reaching 319 by Monday. Ross MacDonald, the jail’s top doctor, called the situation a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” (As of last week, there were 1,324 confirmed coronavirus cases connected to prisons and jails, according to The New York Times, including at least 32 deaths.)

In normal times, reentry is a trying process. Incarcerated people have mental and physical health needs at higher rates than those of the general population, and they face significant hurdles to employment on release. These aren’t normal times, though. “I’m ready to get back to my life,” Mele said. But that will have to wait.  

“The pandemic has created a definite crisis for us,” said Terah Lawyer, who manages the Homecoming Project at Impact Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. Lawyer said that in California, where she’s based, the Department of Corrections called on the nonprofit sector to assist with housing placements, as jails prepare to release thousands of people. But organizations like hers lack resources. “Many of us are just struggling to keep the lights on,” she said. 

Lawyer, who was formerly incarcerated, is an advocate for decarceration, but the current situation troubles her. “We’re not thinking about how these individuals should be landing,” she said. “We’re almost setting them up for failure.” 

Mele contacted the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet by assisting with housing, government benefits, and job searches. “We’ve been getting twice as many calls as usual,” Reverend Flores Bolivar, who helps manage the organization, said, noting that the uptick accounts only for those who manage to get in touch in the first place because they have access to a phone. And while the organization typically directs clients to nearby shelters, that’s becoming less of an option, as “all the shelters are full.” 

Bolivar’s organization is putting Mele up in a motel, but many people find themselves homeless upon release. Advocates for criminal justice reform say that overdue measures to reduce the bloated U.S. prison population are unfolding in the worst possible conditions.

Even reentry organizations with residential facilities are struggling to support the new influx. “We have to turn people away, because many of our residents are elderly, and we can’t run the risk of infection,” said JoAnne Page, the president and CEO of the Fortune Society, a New York organization that supports reentry.  There’s also the problem of limited space. “People are afraid for their lives, begging to get in,” she said. “What we’re seeing is devastating.”

And not everyone finds support organizations after being released. Without assistance, they run into logistical hurdles: Employment, advocates say, is critical to reentry. Numerous studies indicate that financial stability significantly reduces recidivism. 

But absent adequate resources, formerly incarcerated people may be left with few options other than “crimes of survival,” according to Lawyer. “A mother caring for her children who doesn’t have any milk will be more likely to steal that milk than if she had the resources,” she said. “It’s plain and simple, and yet the question is: Does the government take responsibility?” It can be a struggle in normal times, but people leaving prisons and jails right now are entering the labor market as the economy slides at unprecedented rates; in the past two weeks alone, a record 10 million Americans filed for unemployment. 

Life under a pandemic has altered daily life in deeper ways, and as prisons emerge as hotbeds of rapid infection, formerly incarcerated people will likely face greater stigma, complicating their ability to secure housing or employment. “You already have the scarlet letter of a criminal record, with this idea that you turned your back on your community,” Nancy La Vigne, vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute, warned. “But now you’re coming out of a correctional setting with the common knowledge that they’re petri dishes for the coronavirus. It will be very easy to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want that person living with me.’”

Eddie, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to his parole status, was released early from San Quentin Prison in California earlier this month, more than three years before his 10-year sentence was set to end. Like Mele, the sanitation situation in the prison alarmed him: few masks in sight, crowded showers, and sick people. 

Eddie doesn’t have an I.D. and hasn’t been able to register for benefits since being released. Right now, he’s staying with his 60-year-old father, but is concerned he could infect him if he’s an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. “I’ve been locked up for all this time, he wants to hug me,” he said. “But if he gets sick, all that will be on me.”

Eddie is grateful that he has somewhere to stay. But living with his father also isn’t what he envisioned for his release. “I did my time. I turned my life around, and I’m ready to work,” he said. “Right now, I just feel like a burden.”

This piece was supported with a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.